By Tanner Delpier
The Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have received a lot of attention over the last year, with the dual issues of poor academic performance and a looming financial crisis. Indeed, the attention has been warranted; test scores have remained abysmally low, and the district continues to face a $3.5 billion debt with a $515 million operating deficit. Additionally, resources in the district have been extremely limited resulting in a lack of academic materials and deplorable building conditions. In response, both teachers and students have protested.
With political pressure rising, the stage was set last year for perhaps the most consequential education reform effort in Michigan in over two decades. Over the course of the year, the Michigan legislature developed a careful, imperfect, but promising legislative package that would have alleviated the immediate financial crisis and put regulatory measures in place. The bipartisan bill would have provided $715 million to the district, returned the schools to local control, and established needed regulatory oversight over the whole system through a new Detroit Education Commission (DEC). It was a legislative rescue for the entire Detroit education system—not just DPS—that put students above politics.
Governor Snyder never signed the bill just described. Instead, on June 21st, Governor Snyder signed a markedly different bill into law having passed through the legislature on a partisan split of 19-18 in the Senate and 55-54 in the House. No Democrats or representatives of Detroit were permitted to comment on the bill, and none voted for it. The final law provided $617 million for the district, failed to include the DEC, put punitive measures on teacher protests of poor working conditions, and allowed the district to hire non-certified teachers.
The law not only allocated nearly $100 million dollars less than what had been negotiated and failed to establish a regulatory authority, but it also included amendments which rubbed in the political victory. By including language to permit non-certified teacher to teach in the district and punitive measures against teacher protests, the bill became a form political retaliation. As Governor Snyder and the Republicans called the bill the rescue Detroit needed, Detroit teachers, students, and officials as well as the Democratic party looked at the legislation as a disgrace. Representatives of Detroit wept on floor of the House. Even Steven Rhodes—the emergency manager who was appointed by Governor Snyder—criticized the bill for not providing enough support.
Politics over People
What could have caused this radical departure from the original compromise? One lawmaker called donors the “only factor” in the change. The undisclosed donors are very likely the DeVos family who have had a large impact on Michigan politics through their funding of lobbying organizations and influence in the Republican party. One source involved in the legislative negotiations said that it was “crystal clear that had the DeVoses not been opposed to [the original DPS bill], it would have had a different future.” Directly after the passage of the bill both the Michigan Freedom Fund and the Great Lakes Education Project, both of which are heavily funded by the DeVos family (providing over half a million dollars to the organizations in 2016 alone), came out in support of the bill. The DeVos family then proceeded to shower those responsible for the bill with massive political contributions averaging to more than $25,000 a day from the family in a seven-week period between June and July.
This series of events brings up three major issues in Michigan governance. First, in practical terms, the law that has been passed provides too little support for DPS and does not establish the regulatory apparatus needed to direct the system forward. This means that the system is unlikely to improve either financially or academically over the long term. Second, the DPS bill questions who is making policy in Lansing. After a remarkable show of bipartisan problem solving over the course of the year, the DeVos family’s influence pushed a rewrite of the bill at the eleventh hour. Finally, a law which targets one city had no support or input from the representation of that city, raising questions about representation. What is clear is that once again politics have been put before children.